Regular readers will know that I spend a lot of my collecting energy trying to spot patterns in my own behaviour, interrogating why I buy, keep and sell the pens I do. It’s resulted in scoring methodologies and taxonomies aplenty.
I have a new one for you today, one that has been nagging at me for a while. I basically wanted to answer the question why don’t I hang on to wonderful midrange or mainstream pens?
The latest example, which is staring me in the face, is the Esterbrook Estie: a pen that I enthuse about regularly. It’s a great pen, pretty, well built, reliable and easy to use, comfortable, and sold by a company that I think engages wonderfully with its communities (eg through its specialist nib offers, and artisan resins).
But no matter how much I like pens such as the Estie, they somehow don’t (so far) stick in my collection long term.
In the past I’ve put it down to, basically, snobbery: anything ‘affordable’ and steel-nibbed goes in a second tray or gets sold.
But that’s not quite it. My collection isn’t all super-high-end pens that you have to handle with white gloves.
So I dug in a little bit more and started to notice my ‘keepers’ falling into three clusters, with relatively little overlap and some repeatability.
Cluster one: Icons
Into this category I put the Montblanc 149, Lamy 2000, Pilot Capless and Visconti Homo Sapiens.
These are well-known, well-respected designs that have been available for a long time nearly unchanged: to me, they’re timeless. They may have pioneered a new aesthetic or defined a category.
They’re not automatically the most expensive products in their brand’s lineup, the fanciest or the rarest. There are plenty of them knocking around. But they’re the flagship, the ambassador, the ones that most purely express their purpose.
There are probably plenty of iconic designs that I don’t appreciate — eg I found the Rotring 600’s cap mechanism infuriating — but these ones make up the backbone of my collection. It wouldn’t be complete without one.
Cluster two: Makers
Into this category I put my Schon DSGN full-size pens, Kasama Una, Desiderata Soubriquet, and Santini Giant.
To me ‘makers’ is not about every pen turner with a stick of Brooks resin. To be part of this group you need a distinctive visual identity, and a drive to experiment, powered by a single mind. The materials may be unusual, the output sporadic and small-batch, but it’s the idiosyncrasy that appeals to me.
Ian Schon has a small team now, but the engineered aesthetic and radical transparency of his process, the pace of his releases, is very personal. The guys from Kasama pop up every now and again with a batch of crazy Unas or Talas, deeply tied to their local community. Desiderata and Santini drive to do everything in-house, with Pierre making his own pistons, analog-style, and Santini making their own nibs. You see their faces on their websites.
Capillaris would undoubtedly fall into this category too. Mayfair pens, with those crazy shapes. Karas, which even at scale retains a personal touch. Gravitas, with relentless innovation and clear DNA.
Cluster three: Lux
Into this category I put the Urushi Sailor King of Pen, Otto Hutt designC, Montblanc Martele, Leonardo Cuspide, Onoto Magna Sequoyah Custom.
The final category I’ve been struggling to name. I don’t want to call them luxury pens, or fine writing, because that implies that the other categories are not. But the pens in this category have that something special: opulent materials, rarity, exceptional engineering. If I didn’t use them every day, I might call them occasion pens. It’s not about price, it’s about perfection. These are the flipside of the ‘icon’ discussion: they’re not the readily available, timeless flagships like the black precious resin 149 or makrolon Lamy 2000. If I had the money, this would be where the Urushi Lamy Dialog went, while the 2000 sits at the other end of the tray.
If I still owned them, my Nakayas and Namikis would fit in here too.
Untangling the knots
I’m not sure if it’s a problem or not, but there are pens that fit into multiple categories. My new Onoto Magna Sequoyah — well, it’s easy to argue that as well as being a lux pen due to its sterling trim and large gold nib, the ‘basic’ Magna qualifies as an iconic design with real heritage. The Montblanc Martele, a lux pen with its opulent hammered silver finish, would in black resin incarnation be an iconic 146.
And there’s a whole category of makers (in my sense) that specialise in this ultra lux world: Hakase with their manual lathe and rare horn material, Danitrio with their Japanese eyedroppers, Oldwin (in theory, at least), and the Santini Giant probably fits in too.
What I haven’t seen yet is a Maker pen that’s also clearly Iconic. Maybe if we give it another decade.
As with all these taxonomies and mental models, they’re really only useful for how they unlock new patterns of thinking. I find this trio of categories, and the resulting Venn diagram, has helped me to answer two very important questions:
How and why does my small tray collection contain such a diversity of pens? Is there method to the chaos or am I just indiscriminate?
What is it that appeals to me about certain pens, and not others? Why do some great pens just not fit?
And so now I can see that the Estie, or the Lamy Dialog CC for another example, doesn’t fall into any of the three buckets, even though I believe them both to be great pens. They’re mass-market, anonymous; they have no personal maker vision. They’re not iconic landmark designs, little pieces of history. And there’s nothing luxurious or rare about them that makes them feel indulgent, special. Without one of those three hooks, I struggle to feel a connection to even the best pens in the long term — or at least to justify a spot in my tray.
What about you? Do you see any flaws in my thinking? Let me know in the comments.
Prefer a video discussing this topic? Here you go.